There are scenes in The English Teacher (2013) where Julianne Moore seems to be channeling the characters once played by Diane Keaton. This isn’t bad, since we haven’t had anyone in recent years portraying the kind of neurotic but lovable women that Keaton used to play. It’s just that we never figured Moore would be the one to pick up the torch.
Moore plays Linda Sinclair, a middle-aged English teacher in a small Pennsylvania town. Her quiet life goes haywire when she decides to produce a play by one of her former students. Jason (Michael Angarano) has returned to their little community after failing to make it in New York as a playwright. He’s the sort of self-absorbed idiot who can’t take criticism, and fills his Facebook page with quotes from Jack Kerouac. In other words, he’s the perfect pseudo bohemian to impress a sheltered woman such as Linda. When she learns that Jason’s father (Greg Kinnear) wants him to forget writing and go to law school, Linda resolves to save Jason’s career.
She enlists the high school’s drama teacher (Nathan Lane) to direct Jason’s play for the senior class production. She even helps finance the mess, until she’s nearly $5,000 in the hole for a play that looks like pretentious crap. From what we see of it, there are lots of suicides, a woman turns into a butterfly, and of course, Lane dresses the cast like characters from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The world of amateur theatricals hasn’t taken such a beating since Waiting for Guffman.
Linda gets so caught up in Jason’s phony posturing – he even lies about his mother’s death to make himself seem like more of a tortured artist – that she ends up having sex with him. She tells Jason they can’t continue, but when she sees him getting involved with one of the actresses in the production, she reveals a nasty jealous streak. A quarrel between Linda and Jason is caught on camera by the school’s smart ass (Charlie Saxton) which leads to Linda losing her job. The traumatic event leads to Linda crashing her car and landing in the hospital, where her doctor happens to be Jason’s father. Then comes an epic scene of stammering and crying, and Moore is suddenly navigating through Keaton land.
The film was directed by Craig Zisk, a television veteran who has directed everything from The Larry Sanders Show to Weeds to Parks and Recreation. Not surprisingly, The English Teacher feels like a television show, but a good one. There are some minor subplots involving the school authorities trying to quash the production, and at one point Lane’s character is hospitalized with exhaustion, but the tensions created by screenwriters Dan and Stacy Charitan amount to little. They intended this to be a sardonic, lighthearted comedy, and that’s what it is.
The English Teacher is funniest when Linda cuts loose – she pepper sprays Jason twice, and her efforts to keep the school’s lead actress (Lilly Collins) away from Jason are inspired.
As good as Moore is, the unsung heroes of The English Teacher are Jessica Hecht and Norbert Leo Butz as the school’s prickly principal and vice principal. These two yearn for the days when each year ended with a production of Our Town. They may be a couple of old-fashioned twits, but they have a point.